Our new found democracy comes with a lot of freedom but this new-found freedom must not be abused or misused. With all the inherent weaknesses of democracy, the benefits it brings in terms of freedom of speech, freedom of association, equal access to Justice System, guarantee of rule of law and so on makes it the best form of governing system any one can ask for in this day and age.
On the other hand, we can easily expose the inherent risks in a democratic system if we over-stretch the liberties and protections democracy comes with. Once we over-stretch the system, the negative consequences will out-weigh the undeniable benefits. Hence it is the responsibility of every Gambian and Gambian resident to use our new-found democracy in a responsible manner so as to maximize the benefits and minimize the negatives that are associated with over-stretching the system.
By abusing any good democratic system beyond reason, it can only produce chaos the consequences of which the whole society pays for. It can also slowly creep the society into anti-democratic systems as people slowly lose confidence in the system. One living example was our good neighbor in the region, Niger. In the 1990’s, this country started its journey towards democracy with high hopes by electing a President, a Prime Minister and a Parliament democratically through the ballot box. While the ordinary people of this nation humbly waited for the benefits of democracy to trickle down, the governing elites (the President and Prime Minister and their gangs) who believed they were smarter than the average farmers, herdsmen, traders etc. who elected them in the first place, ignored the interests of the common man and struggled for power. The country was paralyzed for a year without any proper functioning government. The result was one idiotic Colonel in the name of Barre Mainassara took advantage of the situation and staged a military coup. Instead of transitioning back to democracy, he tried to entrench himself by first delaying for four years but eventually calling for elections which he was going to rig anyway. ‘The Colonel’ ended up being assassinated by his own bodyguards and meanwhile it was Niger and Nigeriens who lost several years of progress. Back in the Gambia after the demise of Dictator Jammeh, we saw people of Kanilai together with some other people from the Foni region demanding the removal of security forces (especially ECOMIG) from their region up to the extent of staging a mass demonstration. This resulted in death and injury. This behavior was definitely stretching democracy to the extreme. Where on earth do individual citizens decide where and where not security forces should operate to maintain law and order? Was that a way of dividing the country into gang territories with each govern by itself? Was the army not operating in Kanilai and Foni until the demise of Jallow Kanilai? Is that what we meant by democracy?
Currently the biggest challenge to our democracy is the desire of certain people to use religion and ethnic differences to stir tensions and divisions among us. The application by the Ahmadiyya Jamaat Movement for a television license and the reaction of some self-appointed Muslim leaders is like planting a time bomb. Just a little over a year ago under the rule of Dictator Jammeh, nobody ever tried to apply for a religious-based television license but with the new democratic dispensation, everybody is coming out of the woodwork. The reaction of so-called self-styled puritans that members of Ahmadiyya Muslim Jamaat are not Muslim is very interesting if not dangerous. This is a slippery slope because if they get away with this, who is going to be next, the Sufis, Murids, Tijaanis etc.? The appropriate answer to these kinds of nefarious claims was given by General Collin Powel during former president Obama’s bid for US presidency when he was nefariously accused of being a Muslim from Kenya while at the same time he was also accused by the same people of having a bigoted Christian Pastor in the mold of Pastor Jeremiah Wright. This must have made Obama the first Chris-Mus (A Christian Muslim) on the surface of the earth. To these hateful and bigoted conspirators, General Collin Powell said: “The question was not whether Obama was a Muslim or not but if he was so what? Was a Muslim American not entitled to become president of the United States?
The government of the Gambia should take immediate steps to put in place concrete and enduring policies that that will prevent any individuals or groups from exploiting the freedoms brought by democracy. These policies regarding the media licensing should be so impersonal and impartial that anybody in a difficult decision making role like the current Information Minister, the President and PURA. will not be put under any undue pressure. Among other policy points to be considered are:
- No television license or media license will be issued to any religious organization or sect
- No television license or media license will be issued to any tribe or tribal organization.
- Public media such as GRTS should continue to give adequate access to various religious groupings or sects in the country, of course with necessary checks and balances.
- Conditions for issuing private media licenses should make it clear that any abuse of such privileges by religious or tribal bigots will lead to severe consequences. We cannot allow our progress to be impeded by tribal, political or religious bigots for their selfish interests.
It is important to have clear-cut impartial policies in place to prevent abuse or people putting undue pressure on political leaders or even threatening them if they fail to make decisions in their favour.
Back to the issue at hand, the government should not issue a television license to the Ahmadiyya Muslim Jamaat not necessarily because they are or they are not “True Muslims”, but simply because such a move will undoubtedly lead to abuse and stirring of religious tensions and instability. If they are issued a license, be rest assured that other Muslim groups or sects will apply for their own licenses with their backers from the Middle East and the Christians will do likewise with their backers, such as fundamental evangelicals from the West. Before we know anything, the small Gambia will be turned into a battleground for religious and tribal zealots. In the Gambia, we have enjoyed political, religious and tribal co-existence from the time of our forefathers and we must continue to jealously guard that.